County mayor, commissioner respond to allegations of Sunshine law violation

Published 5:40 pm Thursday, August 22, 2019

Carter County Mayor Russell Barnett and Commissioner Robert Acuff responded to news coverage of a closed door meeting at the county courthouse Wednesday evening.

Commissioner Robert Acuff said he organized the meeting after receiving a call from Goodhall about wanting to update the county on his progress.

“We discussed the date for the ground-breaking ceremony,” Barnett told the Star.

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Acuff said the meeting was simply to catch everyone up on the status of the project and when a ground-breaking could possibly occur, and that the meeting was Goodhall’s idea.

“He said ‘Let me catch everyone up,’” Acuff said.

He said he brought in Barnett, Planning Director Chris Schuettler and a representative from the Forestry Service.

Local new channel WCYB reported they waited outside the Mayor’s conference room for about an hour waiting to get quotes from commissioners present for the meeting.

Barnett said during that time he actually had several meetings that took place.

“There was no deliberation,” Barnett said. “It was just an update on the project.”

The Sunshine law states there can be no “deliberation” about upcoming votes or policy-making decisions outside of a publicly advertised meeting.

The Star reached out to County Attorney Josh Hardin, who sent back a release that said “While it was certainly a meeting by the common definition of the word, […] in my opinion it was not in fact a meeting as […] commonly referred to as the ‘sunshine law.’ […] Any insinuation otherwise is misleading to the public.”

Barnett said since none of his Wednesday evening meetings were about upcoming votes or policy-making decisions, he said county attorney Josh Hardin told him he was not in violation of the law.

“[Sonja] Culler came later to discuss other topics,” he said. “She and I then went into my office.”

He said Culler wanted to discuss the newly opened positions on Barnett’s Joint Economic and Community Development Board and discussed the possibility of submitting an application. She then stayed to hear about the resort.

As for why Schuettler was at the meeting, Barnett said his duties of Planning Director still warranted his presence.

“His department is responsible for reviewing plans for any development located in the county outside of city limits,” he said. “The Planning and Zoning Department is also responsible for issuing construction permits.”

Acuff pointed out both he and Culler are on the Planning Commission.

“There were no votes, no talking about votes,” he said. “Hardin said there were no violations.”

He said the county does not conduct official business this way.

“As far as I am concerned, somebody needs to get to the truth.”

Barnett announced the officially planned ground-breaking date for the resort: October 17 at 10:30 a.m. The public is free to attend.